Monday, July 30, 2012

Martin Amis and Satire

I read a Martin Amis novel for the first time this year, and so this interview with him caught my eye. It's super long, and interesting only in sections, but there were numerous times when I was reminded of Juvenal's (and to a lesser extent Horace's) satires. Here are a few bits that piqued my interest:
...the book is a kind of satire of contemporary England—a member of its underclass wins the lottery and enters its tabloid class. Satire is—I wonder how helpful it is as a category. It was once defined in apposition to irony, in that the satirist isn’t just looking at things ironically but militantly—he wants to change them, and intends to have an effect on the world. I think that category just doesn’t exist in literature. No novel has ever changed anything, as far as I can see. And the great satirists, like Swift and Dickens, tend to write about abuses and injustices that have already been partially corrected—you write about it after it’s over. I would say I’m an ironist not a satirist. All you do is you take existing tendencies and crank them up, just turn up the volume dial.
It’s not class anymore. It’s money... And plenty of people got it who don’t deserve it.
Juvenal feels the same way. Here for example is a passage from near the start of Satire III:

cedamus patria. vivant Artorius istic
et Catulus, maneant qui nigrum in candida vertunt,
quis facile est aedem conducere, flumina, portus,
siccandam eluviem, portandum ad busta cadaver,
et praebere caput domina venale sub hasta.
quondam hi cornicines et municipalis harenae
perpetui comites notaeque per oppida buccae
munera nunc edunt et, verso pollice vulgus
cum iubet, occidunt populariter; inde reversi
conducunt foricas, et cur non omnia? cum sint
quales ex humili magna ad fastigia rerum
extollit quotiens voluit Fortuna iocari.

Let's get out of here. Let Artorius and Catulus live on here, those who turn black into white, who see no problem with tendering for temples, rivers, harbours, cleaning up floods, carrying corpses to the morgue, or even selling themselves into slavery. These people used to musicians and permanent fixtures at second-class sporting events, and their faces were known in all the country towns. Now they put on shows themselves and with their thumb turned whenever the vulgar crowd demands it, they kill for the sake of popularity. Then they turn around and tender for the sewers, and why shouldn't they do all this? After all these are the kinds of people whom Fate raises from humble origins to great heights of wealth whenever she's looking for a bit of a joke.

I don’t think I’d like Manhattan anymore... It’s a fantastic sight—every time, it awes me. But it’s too noisy. The city that never sleeps—yeah, that’s right. The city where you never sleep, because there’s some self-righteous municipal vehicle doing something incredibly noisy at three in the morning outside your window.
Compare that to Juvenal III.232-238:

Plurimus hic aeger moritur vigilando...
...nam quae meritoria somnum
admittunt? magnis opibus dormitur in urbe.
inde caput morbi. raedarum transitus arto
vicorum in flexu et stantis convicia mandrae
eripient somnum Druso vitulisque marinis.

Most sick people here in Rome die from being kept awake... for what accommodation actually allows you to sleep? You can only buy sleep in the city with great wealth. This is the source of the illness. The toings and froings of wagons in the narrow bends of the neighbourhoods and the cattle-hand cursing his stalled flock are enough to snatch sleep from Drusus, or even seals.

One of the things that pleased [my friend Christopher] Hitchens most during his last months was... how many young people are in the audience. And it’s very heartening if you find yourself attracting the young. Heartening more than anyone knows because it means your stuff is going to live, at least one more generation. If you feel you have a strong constituency among the young, you can really die happy, because the great unanswered question, the only valid value judgment is whether you’re going to last, and that tells you that you are, for a bit at least... My father always claimed to be completely uninterested in posterity. I said, it doesn’t mean anything to you, whether you’re going to be read in 50 years’ time? And he said, it’ll be no fucking use to me, will it? I’ll be dead. But I think that was sort of bravado, I think it did matter to him. When I see a lot of young faces in the audience, it’s just sort of sinking in how important that is.
Horace writes some contradictory things about posterity. Most famously in these lines from Ode III.30:

Non omnis moriar multaque pars mei
vitabit Libitinam; usque ego postera
crescam laude recens, dum Capitolium
scandet cum tacita virgine pontifex.

I shall not die completely, but a great part of me shall avoid death; I shall grow ever fresh with the praise of subsequent generations, as long as the chief priest ascends the Capitol together with a silent maiden.

I have often marvelled with my students that Horace's fame outlived even his own boastful predictions and he is still read by students (admittedly only the most gifted and fortunate) in schools today. However this passage from Satire I.X puts a slightly different, less triumphal spin on things:

saepe stilum vertas, iterum quae digna legi sint
scripturus, neque te ut miretur turba labores,
contentus paucis lectoribus. an tua demens
vilibus in ludis dictari carmina malis?
non ego;

If you would often set your pen to write things which are worthy of being read, don't struggle to gain the admiration of the crowd, but be content with a few readers. Or are you so crazy that you would prefer your poems to be studied in cheap schools? I am certainly not.


Anonymous said...

I think you'll find that your references to Juvenal Satire X above are actually to Satire III.

jm said...

whoops. thanks for pointing it out.